Stand Up Guys
Al Pacino’s aging con is released from prison after 28 years. Best pal Christopher Walken is there to meet him, charged with the task of greasing him. Fisher Stevens’ bittersweet dramedy is (mostly) amiable but inconsequential, dragged down by a charmless script. If the movie just about sustains interest, it’s by virtue its status as the (belated) first ever pairing of these former screen titans.
Now the likes of Arnie and Sly are regular joint-headliners, the prospect of movie legends finally trading quips and blows doesn’t quite hold the anticipation it once did. It took De Niro and Pacino the best part of 20 years before they shared a coffee in Michael Mann’s Heat. When they reteamed another decade later, no one could have given a shit (it doesn’t help that Righteous Kill isn’t all that). Often the problem encountered is one of making the material withstand the star power (sometimes it’s merely that the star power is no longer so starry). De Niro, Brando and Norton together sounded unmissable, but The Score is really only so-so. And most of that so-so is to do with seeing them together. So it is with Stand Up Guys.
If Christopher Walken is a bastion of reliability, often especially when the material isn’t up to snuff, the same can’t be said of Pacino. I’d much rather watch Al on autopilot than De Niro, but it’s the difference between an actor who is permanently amped up and one who can barely stay awake. There is little nuance to a performance from either of them these days and, particularly in Pacino’s case, the increased exposure and lack of discernment in choosing projects has diminished his stature; he has no compunction about starring opposite Adam Sandler in drag or indulging in bargain basement (extended) stiffy gags. There’s something disappointingly dishevelled about him here, as he gives off a seedy, unkempt, Albert Steptoe vibe. Still, for a guy in his early-70s he remains remarkably vital. And, even given his lost lustre, it remains a small thrill to see him and Walken sharing obvious chemistry even in wholly unremarkable material.
Pacino has a night of freedom before Walken has to put a bullet in his head, so naturally they get up to all sorts of adventures. Unfortunately first-timer Noah Haidle’s script comes up short not only the inventive scenarios front, it also settles on all the most over-used ones. If Walken manages to imbue a sense of melancholy into his every scene, Pacino is called upon to snort prescription meds and swallow half a bottle of Viagra. And visit a brothel. And sort out some local wise guys. Most insensitive and ill considered is their encounter with a gang rape victim who seems remarkably untraumatised (it’s all okay you see, as she gets to take revenge on the rapists’ nuts with a baseball bat).
Although the poster would have you believe this is a triple act, Alan Arkin’s role is that of supporting actor. He’s magnificent, though, and the picture really steps up a gear when he’s riffing with Walken and Pacino. More than the other two, Arkin’s had a great selection of roles in the 21st century, after not really having much of a profile during the ‘80s and ‘90s.
The supporting cast includes one of those over-used actors as the villain, Mark Margolis (most visible across three seasons of Breaking Bad). He shows up, chews scenery, leaves. Julianne Margulies appears for a couple of minutes as Arkin’s daughter. Fisher Stevens, best known for a playing a slightly dodgy Indian stereotype in Short Circuit, is the director on his sophomore feature. If the cast refer to him to as an actor’s director, it’s a nice way of saying he doesn’t have much stylistic sense about him. If this means the attention is all on the actors, it has the side effect of exposing the script’s deficiencies to the harsh light of day. At its best the affair feels like something of a throwback picture. Unfortunately that also extends to the almost-‘80s movie checklist of larks these guys get mixed up in (washed through a post-Judd Apatow gross-out filter).
I mentally linked this to Last Vegas when both were in production, as both feature a medley of old-timers on a jaunt. Stand Up Guys’ premise is much closer to that of In Bruges, however. Which I’m sure could have done with a dose of Christopher Walken (what movie couldn’t, and Bruges director Martin McDonagh subsequently used to great effect him in Seven Psychopaths), but was pretty much perfect. Stand Up Guys is a long way from greatness, and has the temerity to shamelessly rip off They Live’s classic line of dialogue (several times). But, if you have fairly low expectations, you could do worse than seeing this trio struggle valiantly to make a silk purse out of a soiled script.